What Being Deeply Depressed Taught Me About Life — And Being Happy

Three days before Christmas 2016, I came within literal inches of harming myself, perhaps fatally. It was pure impulse — a flash of self-directed anger that I’d been building toward for a decade. Oh, the irony… even as I plotted to off myself, I didn’t know (or admit to myself) WHY I felt this terrible compulsion.

In my case, I’d been keeping a secret from myself: I was sexually molested — twice — when I was 14 by the religious director at the northwest Baltimore synagogue where my family belonged while I was growing up. For 45 years, I kept that bit of personal history boxed up deep in my psyche. I always knew this “thing” was there. I simply refused to acknowledge it.

More irony — it wasn’t until after I tried to kill myself — and sought treatment — that I had the emotional strength to face the fact of what happened to me. The night I came clean with myself — to myself — was the longest, loneliest night of my life. I understood myself in a way I never had before. I understood my inability to bond with other people the way everyone else seemed to bond with each other.

I understood why I felt so much emotional distance from the world. Why I felt like I lived, by myself, on an island from which I could never escape: if you didn’t know this terrible secret about me, you couldn’t possibly “know” me. Only two people knew the secret: me and Yehuda Dickstein, the man who molested me. Perversely, I kept our secret — kinda like Yehuda knew I would. He molested me twice — so, he knew for a fact that I never told anyone about the first time.

That’s the hook on which I hung myself for 45 years — the fact that I never told anyone — and then it happened again.

Like lots of victims, I blamed myself. I couldn’t rationalize the first time. That made absolutely no sense to me. It was too surreal. But the second time — I helped manufacture it by not saying anything — convincing myself even that it couldn’t possibly have happened. Then I walked in the door to the place where Yehuda awaited me — and I instantly knew: yes, it HAD happened and it was about to happen again.

We all have varying degrees of darkness inside of us. Comes with being a sentient being with intrinsic knowledge of our vulnerabilities. When healthy, we see the world with a high degree of perspective. We understand when we’re at fault and when we’re not. But depression allows our darkness to take the wheel. The more control our darkness has, the more perspective we lose until, finally, we see everything though a vary narrow, very dark lens.

Though I had lived a very good, successful life, something inside was holding me back. My inability to bond — like a time bomb — ticked away steadily. Worse, my secret was the silent foundation for feelings of incredibly low self esteem. I believed my work was good — but I had no belief in myself whatsoever. And when things started to turn — because life has its ups and downs — I took those reversals of fortune as my due.

My secret had convinced me that I absolutely deserved everything bad that happened to me. In fact, I deserved worse. My darkness’s naked cynicism became a kind of mantra.

I knew I was in trouble. I was in therapy — and that was working up to a point.

But there was great white shark swimming just below the surface. I was afraid of medication, having read and heard more horror stories than success stories. Having grown up in the medical culture (my dad was a surgeon), I understood that the most my GP probably knew about the mood stabilizers I was asking about was whatever the last pharmaceutical rep told her as he slipped a package of samples from her briefcase.

And even if the mood stabilizer might work for me, it would be six to eight weeks before we’d have an inkling of whether it would or not — and there was the distinct possibility that this mood stabilizer would make my depression worse. Add to the mix — I wanted the medication to deal with the darkness while leaving my hypomania alone (I’m bi-polar, you see). My creativity resides in my hypomania — and the thought of losing my mojo — that sounded like a shortcut right back to suicide.

I had done research and identified a drug — lamotrigine (lamictil) that could work for me. After my near run-in with mortality, I drove straight to my doctor’s office and told them what happened. Great life hack? If you want really quick medical service, tell your health care professionals you just tried to hurt yourself.

I got not only my GP (a terrific doctor) but one of the two HEAD doctors. They got from the look in my eyes that I was deadly serious. They asked me three times if perhaps to consider hospitalization. In said no — I was there to try and help myself; but, first, they needed to write me this prescription. My two GP’s whipped out their smart phones and looked up the drug. They agreed to write the script.

Then I got really lucky — even luckier than I realized in fact.

Whereas one normally has to wait six to eight weeks to see if a mood stabilizer works or not, I leveled within 36 hours. I felt the lamotrigine’s impact: I triggered.

I can’t remember why anymore but something caused the rage that had been living rent free in my gut to ignite. I felt it rising like a lava plume rushing upward toward my head and my mouth — and just as it got there — just as I would normally speed up, lose my cool and become utterly irrational — the rage vanished — poof! — like a soap bubble popping. I knew I had felt all that rage and yet… now I felt nothing. The rage was gone before it could take flight and overwhelm me.

I’ve never taken more than the 25 milligram minimum dose since. And my depression has been kept completely at arm’s length. Here’s where the extra bit of luck kicked in. My research? It wasn’t complete. Yes, there was anecdotal data that lamotrigine wouldn’t impact my hypomania. There’s way more anecdotal data (no one’s ever tested lamotrigine as a mood stabilizer; it’s used mostly as an anti-seizure medication) that says it absolutely would impact my hypomania — at higher doses.

That bit of luck aside, the first lesson my depression taught me was that until you finally stand up to your darkness, it will own you. And it knows it.

Look — standing up to your darkness is hard. There are no easy answers here. Terrible things put you where you are emotionally. The thing about standing up to your darkness though is it requires help. To beat your darkness you must reach outside yourself. Seeking therapy is essential of course. But it’s important that you actively engage with your therapy — that you see therapy (the act of seeking help) as you being pro-active. It’s not just a good thing, it’s a great thing. But the real work of getting healthy remains ahead of you.

There’s no certainty in this. We’re not talking about concrete, we’re talking about the human mind — and we don’t really understand how we even “have” thoughts. And everyone’s darkness is a little bit different — because we are all a little bit different.

The goal always is happiness. The absence of suffering and emotional pain. The goal is to be the master of your darkness and not the other way around.

I’m a “devout atheist” to my core but I know exactly what born again Christians are talking about. Being able to see my darkness in its proper perspective — understanding WHY there was that darkness to begin with and WHY it had held so much power over me — liberated me. It can’t make the memory of that event go away. It can’t undo the broken relationships and poor choices. It can’t bring back all the time I lost to being depressed and having zero faith in myself.

But I can see that period of my life for what it was. And I can see my present for what it is and, more importantly, my future for what it could be — if only I pursue it. That’s the nature of hope — of believing in a future where happiness can blossom in its fullness.

That’s the biggest lesson my depression taught me. Happiness is absolutely possible.

Since I Stopped Drinking Alcohol, I’ve Come To See Clearly — America Has A Problem With Alcohol

Want to know if Americans drink too much alcohol? Quit drinking for a day. Better yet a week — or a month. Better yet, quit drinking entirely. I wasn’t forced to quit drinking by the mood stabilizer that saved my life. Alcohol can increase the intensity of any side effects the lamictil causes but, by itself, it can’t hurt you. What I found lamictil does to alcohol is give it a terrible aftertaste that ruins the whole experience.

It doesn’t matter whether the alcohol’s in a glass of wine, a bottle of beer or in a martini — just when you expect the glorious aftertaste of whatever you’re drinking to carry on, instead you get grapefruit skin and lots of it. I was cooking clams al vongele the other day. It’s basically clams, parsley, garlic and a bottle of wine (I like to add a little celery and some Pernod to kick up the licorice qualities). I poured in the wine and Pernod — got the sauce back to a simmer and sampled it, expecting exquisiteness.

Instead, I got grapefruit skin. A bottle of wine is a bottle of wine whether it’s in your glass or simmering away in a sauce. It takes a lot longer than you think to burn off alcohol as you cook with it. I forgot that basic fact at first — then wondered why the sauce tasted so awful.

When I was growing up, my dad collected wines — French reds. He and his friends would buy Bordeaux futures — as yet unharvested (ungrown even) grapes in the expectation that they’d become great, age-worthy vintages like 1970 or 1971. When I say my dad “taught me” how to drink, I mean he taught me to appreciate the thing I was guzzling like it was bug juice at summer camp.

I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a responsible drinker — same as there’s no such thing as a responsible gun owner. 99% of the time — absolutely — most people behave responsibly toward both alcohol and guns. It only takes one slip up however to produce tragedy — one half glass of wine too many that resulted in an accident or traffic fatality or a gun that wasn’t locked up properly in its gun safe — and became a murder weapon.

In both instances, “responsible” becomes “irresponsible” just like that.

I was a lot less responsible than I gave myself credit for being. I’ve no doubt I drove while over the limit on multiple occasions. I know for a fact that I dodged a bullet or two or three where alcohol and driving are concerned. I know for a fact that I am hardly alone having that in my past. Sometimes I marvel that any of us are actually still here and walking (or driving) around.

Before lamictil made alcohol taste like shit, I LOVED drinking. I adored it. I marveled at the craftsmanship that went into a great scotch or a complex bottle of Petit Sirah (I loved em big and inky). I drank every single day — usually two glasses of red wine, sometimes a third glass. On rare occasion a fourth.

I was kinda known for getting even more opinionated than I already am. That’s a lot of “opinionated” to drunkenly throw at people. I don’t recall ever being drunk. I don’t recall ever being wasted or shit-faced or rat-arsed. But then, I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t watching me.

These days, when I go to a party or a bar with my wife and/or friends, I’m the lone teetotaler. When the bartender or wait-person turns to me for my order, most of the time I don’t have one: I’ll have water, I say. Their face always betrays them. My beverage will not benefit their tip. I might as well be dead, as far as they’re concerned.

It’s strange to watch your friends as alcohol takes them over. That’s what alcohol does. It changes how people act. While making them feel good for a bit, it also undermines their motor skills and slowly destroys their capacity to make good decisions. I’ve never seen my friends get out-of-their-heads crazy from drinking. But I have seen them get loud, belligerent, unreasonable, disrespectful and downright unpleasant.

When my kids went off to college, I feared for them as they encountered the drinking cultures on their respective college campuses; I worried especially for my daughter since campus rape culture (like campus fraternity culture) is tied to campus alcohol culture. I was grateful to learn that she and her friends prefer marijuana to alcohol. No one has ever died from marijuana poisoning as they have from alcohol poisoning.

I feel almost blasphemous saying this: alcohol prohibitionists weren’t wrong. They wanted to accomplish something impossible in a free society — prohibition of a product the people want. Prohibition didn’t just make alcohol illegal, it criminalized virtually the entire population while giving organized criminals a nearly perfect product to sell. Prohibitionists used the wrong methodology though their insights were rock solid. Alcohol is far too easily abused. And alcohol abuse causes far too much long-lasting social and personal harm to too many people.

Ads for alcohol are aimed (alarmingly) toward young people. Hell, alcohol products themselves are aimed alarmingly at young people. If you have to fruit flavor alcohol up to make it palatable, maybe you aren’t really ready to drink alcohol. That may look like an umbrella in your drink, it’s not; it’s training wheels. And if you really need training wheels on your alcohol, maybe you shouldn’t ought to be drinking alcohol.

My suggestion? Pick up a gram of top quality sativa or hybrid instead (unless of course you want to go to sleep then pick up a gram or two of indica). As self-medcations go, cannabis blows alcohol clear out of the water. It’s so much more versatile (you cannot work with alcohol in your system just like you can’t drive with it or do athletic things with it because of how profoundly it impacts your motor skills).

Having switched from alcohol to cannabis, I’ve also come to see that America has a cannabis problem too. We don’t smoke anywhere near enough of it.

Notes From A Former Drinker — Drinking Culture Is Really, Really, REALLY Stupid

Perspective is the damnedest thing. For the overwhelming majority of my adult life, I was a drinker. I never thought of myself as an alcoholic though I drank at least 2 glasses of wine every day. Religiously.

I prided myself on making not merely a good martini but a great one (I still do as my wife can attest). I savored the creative output that some craftsperson spent years probably putting into whatever bottle I had just cracked. I actually pitied anyone who didn’t drink.

Oy.

Meanwhile, alcohol fed my depression. Theirs was a sick, co-dependent relationship with me caught in the middle. Toward the end, it’s not like I was drinking great stuff anyway — I couldn’t afford great stuff anymore (though I still had some pretty great stuff in my dwindling “wine cellar” including some Chateau Lafitte Rothschild and some Opus One). Even after I came within inches of killing myself, it still didn’t occur to me to look at my 2+ glasses of red wine every night as a possible co-conspirator.

I owe a small debt to lamotrigine, the mood stabilizer I now take every day to keep my darkness in check. I owe an even bigger debt to a great therapist and a smaller but not insignificant debt to cannabis — the other part of my mental health regime. There are no specific warnings about taking lamotrigine and drinking alcohol. And, at first, when I started my regimen, I continued right on pounding down my two plus glasses of red.

But then a strange thing happened. I noticed it about a week in to taking the lamotrigine (I got very, VERY lucky by the way; I leveled within 36 hours at the minimal dose, 25 milligrams). All alcohol suddenly had an aftertaste. All of it. Beer, wine, cocktails… A lovely glass of Zinfandel or Petit Sirah (I loved em big & inky) would start perfectly from the nose to the first blast of fruit on the palate then start to settle in for the aftertaste when — kapow! A flavor like grapefruit rind took over everything. And it didn’t go away quickly.

As I was already deep into cannabis, I figured “what the hell” — that would be my “cocktail” of choice from now on. Funny thing? I have not missed alcohol for two seconds. Not even one.

Now, I do take my marijuana with me. I’ve got a little traveling pouch with an unbreakable silicone pipe and three or four pre-ground flower strains (sativas and hybrids) in 10 dram glass containers. I may not go drink for drink when I go out socializing, but I’m not relying solely on my fizzy water, ginger beer or overpriced mocktail for a thrill.

For the record, I do not get high. Ever. I’m not interested in being high. To me, cannabis is for sleeping, working or relaxing. When relaxing (think strains like Cherry Pie, GSC or Bruce Banner), I want to be mellowed a bit but social. I want the warm, friendly euphoria to keep my hypomania at bay. So — even when I go to a party at someone’s house, in no way am I “keeping up” with everyone else around me who’s drinking.

Watching other people drink from a place of alcohol sobriety is almost always eye-opening. I’ve watched friends slowly get silly over the course of an evening. I’ve watched the quality of the conversations descend from heights of great repartee to meandering repetitiveness — all within an hour or two. People getting soused by the way have no idea that they’re not being witty any more.

Also remarkable — the amount of planning that has to go into drinking. I can make a few grams of my favorite strains last for a month. A bottle once cracked will probably disappear within an hour if shared. While most restaurants have liquor licenses, I have been part of dining decisions made where we overlooked a place’s inferior food because the cocktails were special. When the cocktail is the point, nothing else matters.

A group of people drinking and a group of people smoking marijuana have very little in common — even though our perception might be that they’re all self-medicating. Because of the way marijuana was demonized and falsely mythologized, we have it in our heads that marijuana and alcohol do the same things to us. That’s absolutely not the case.

I do some work occasionally for a marijuana tour company here in Los Angeles. The tours start out at a dispensary where (after lots of good, quality information about legal pot), the tour goers buy lots of marijuana. The next stop — a house (owned by the company) where the tour goers can smoke the pot they just bought. That part of the tour lasts about 45 minutes.

Then we take this dozen or so people of varying ages (all over 21 of course) to a glass blowing factory where they can see how bongs are made (it’s very cool actually). Then the tour takes them to a glass warehouse. Now — here’s where the difference between drinkers & pot smokers is most pronounced. This group of people who’ve just spent 45 minutes smoking pot walk into a glass warehouse… and nothing breaks.

Think about it — would you dare take a dozen people who’d been drinking beer for an hour into a glass warehouse? Does that sound like a good idea? Of course not — because people who’ve been drinking lose motor control whereas people who’ve been smoking marijuana GAIN motor control. Fine motor control even.

I’ve watched people I know for a FACT are “high as kites” pick up beautiful, delicate glass bongs — works of art, some of them — like surgeons doing microsurgery. Smoke a lot of strong indica and, yeah, you can get “dopey”. But — because marijuana actually makes your brain “think more” (it causes more of your synapses to open so you process more information — the reason some people feel paranoid), most users can pull out of a cannabis high and think clearly; if you really want them to think clearly, feed them a little CBD; it will mitigate the THC’s effects almost instantaneously.

And, another huge difference, though pot smokers can get loud — they do laugh a lot — they never get violent (contrary to the mythology first drug czar Harry Anslinger invented to scare white people).

Imagine if sports fans smoked pot instead of drinking beer. There would never be violence at the end of a sporting event — though there might be lots of hugging (“You played great, dude!” “But you played better — ya won!”) and a few people happily sleeping or dealing with a severe case of the munchies.

Violence wouldn’t spill from the stadium onto the city streets. That’s for damned sure.

From time to time, I do miss some of the rituals around drinking. I like the process of making a martini. I loved the theater surrounding absinthe and the way a good bottle of red opens up as the tannins oxidize over the course of an hour.

But then I tap a little Durban Poison into my regular glass piece — and, as my mind focuses and the world comes into sharp relief — I could almost forget alcohol ever existed.

Why Are We All So Addicted To Our Own Bullshit? Easy — We’re Addicted To It BECAUSE It’s “Ours”…

I almost learned the hard way how addicted I was to bullshit. My bullshit nearly killed me. For real.

Long story short, I kept a secret from myself for 45 years — that I was molested (twice) when I was 14. If I think of my hypomanic mind as a black box theater filled with projections (my thoughts), this memory sat in a file drawer in a closet in an office far at the back of the theater, up a long metal staircase. The memory glowed inside its drawer.

I always knew it was there.

That I denied this thing happened to me — that was bullshit. But it’s something that victims of sexual assault do as a survival strategy. We blame ourselves. It seems logical. And since it was our fault, we convince ourselves that we deserve every terrible thing that ever flows from it. I became so convinced this bullshit was true that I came within literal inches of killing myself.

I count myself extremely lucky. Between a magnificent therapist, a mood stabilizer (at a minimal dose) that keeps my depression caged and loads of THC to help get my hypomania focused (I highly recommend Durban Poison during the day — it delivers a smooth, even feeling of clear-headed mental energy), I get through my days with a high degree of happiness now. As I started to get healthy, I saw (to my horror) that not only had my own bullshit tried to kill me, my bullshit was undermining every other facet of my life, too.

From the moment I woke up in the morning, I was seeing the world through the bullshit color lenses I kept by my bedside and put on the instant I woke up. I breathed deeply the bullshit scented fumes rising from the piles of bullshit that I had left by my bed the night before. I thought things based on bullshit, did things based on bullshit, said things based on bullshit.

And I was shocked, shocked, I tell ya, when I got bullshit back in response.

Now, let’s be real. No one’s ever going to live 100% bullshit free. Bullshit is hardwired into our genome. Take bullshit away from us and there’d be no religion (not the worst thing that could happen to us). Take bullshit away from us and a lot of relationships would instantly metastasize and die. Take bullshit away from us and Donald Trump would be serving multiple life terms in a federal penitentiary already — alongside pretty much every single Republican.

Bullshit comes in 4 “flavors” or levels…

Level 1: Incidental Bullshit

  • Your 5 year old asks if there’s Santa Claus; you say yes.
  • It’s 6 am.  You have to get up.  You don’t want to.  “Five more minutes,” you tell yourself – you won’t be late.  Bullshit – you know damned well you’ll be late.  You do it anyway.
  • “One more spoonful of ice cream won’t matter to my diet/diabetes.”
  • “Why did you look at me funny when I took one more spoonful of ice cream?”
  •  “Have a nice day” (no matter who says it, no matter why).

Incidental Bullshit is water off a duck’s back.  Life’s just too short to get too hung up on this kind of low grade truthiness.  It’s petty mostly.  Meaningless and forgettable.  However:  This is the ‘shit’ that ‘happens’.  It just does.  What are any of us going to do about it?  Nothing.  Moving on…

Level 2: Tolerable Bullshit

  • Your 10 year old – who’s starting to figure things out – asks if there’s a Santa Claus; you say yes.
  • Your bff always brings a bottle of red wine when she comes over – except you drink white wine.  What kind of guest is that?  You could say something, but you don’t; you’ll keep the peace instead.
  • You both know damned well whose turn it is to clean the bathroom – but you do it better anyway, so…
  •  “I love you” said under duress.

Tolerable Bullshit will challenge you occasionally – is it actually tolerable?  Small doses – no problem.  More than that?   It could easily start to feel just like bullshit.

Level 3: Red Flag Warning Bullshit

  • Your 20 year old asks – for real – if there’s a Santa Claus.
  • “I don’t have a drinking problem.”
  • “My phone’s battery died.  No, really – I swear it!”

You know it in your gut – it ain’t right.  It doesn’t add up or it just plain smells.  This is the bullshit that leaves a mark – or worse.  Deal with it now – you’ll probably be okay.  Ignore the warning and this bullshit will likely morph into –

Level 4: Utter Bullshit

  • “I alone can fix it.”
  • “No collusion.”
  •  “I don’t deserve to be here”

This is the stuff that kills.  It changes lives forever.  And it’s bullshit.

Getting rid of our own bullshit is hard. You have to own it in order to get rid of it. Think of it as confession — except there’s no church. YOU are the church. YOU know where all your bodies are buried because YOU’RE the one who buried them.

Does living (or trying to live) bullshit free work? Yeah — it does. I’m so busy dealing with my own bullshit that I never have time to worry (let alone think about) anyone else’s bullshit. That means I don’t judge their bullshit anymore — they’re all as consumed & dominated by their bullshit as I am.

What do you have to lose — trying to live bullshit free — except your bullshit?